Wisconsin GOP vs William Cronon

William Cronon is an environmental historian, the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, authored a couple of books that changed the way historians think, won a Bancroft Prize, was a Rhodes Scholar, and just basically has a really impressive CV behind him. Salon’s Andrew Leonard called him “one of the most highly regarded historians in the United States” in his article, Wisconsin’s Most Dangerous Professor.

William Cronon

William Cronon. Image from WilliamCronon.net. Click to view source.

Cronon’s been in the news quite a bit the last couple of days because he’s just become the target of a Freedom of Information Act request tendered by the Wisconsin GOP. Why? Well, he wrote an op-ed (Wisconsin’s Radical Break) for the New York Times, which he followed up with a very informative inaugural blog post (Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?) at his new blog. The blog post, in particular, seems to have gotten Republican panties in a bit of a twist, as it delves deep into the history of a little-known organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Of ALEC, Cronon writes, “The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)”

Cronon did some fairly thorough research on ALEC, which led him to ask some pointed questions of Wisconsin Republicans, like, how many members of the Wisconsin GOP belong to ALEC? Because you have to be a sitting Republican representative or senator to join (or pay a few grand if you’re a private citizen), and you can’t view the majority of their website or their membership rolls without being a member. This is important because closed Republican meetings with ALEC might otherwise violate Wisconsin’s open meeting laws were it not for special loophole legislation in that law. So, while being a member of ALEC and having closed meetings as an ALEC member isn’t technically illegal, it sure seems pretty shady and contrary to the idea of an open government. Regardless of that, the whole blog post raises more than a few questions about ALEC, a group which has done quite well at staying under the radar and apparently very well at getting some unpleasant legislation passed.

(For the record, Cronon is remarkably fair in his treatment of ALEC and the GOP and as unbiased as you could reasonably ask someone to be. The post is a good read, and well worth a moment or two to check out.)

That doesn’t explain why Cronon got FOIA‘d, though. Hundreds of good, informative blog posts get published every hour, and none of them are getting FOIA’d by state Republicans. In fact, you can’t issue an FOIA against most bloggers, because they’re protected by the same laws that protect private citizens, and in many cases, by the shield laws that protect most journalists.

This is where it gets a bit sticky. Cronon is an employee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a state run college, and he used his university email account to conduct some of the research for his blog post. Technically, this makes him a state employee, using a state email account. So, since he’s, in the most nit-picky, technical sense, a state employee using a state email account, he’s open to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Up until now, that’s a circumstance that’s been treated with the same regard as any citizen using a private email account. Your average state university professor hasn’t had to worry about his university email being the subject of an FOIA because even though that professor is technically a state employee, professors in universities have enjoyed a little thing called “academic freedom:”

Academic freedom is the belief that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.

So why Cronon, and why now? Reading the request itself lends an ominous clarity:

From: Stephan Thompson [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:37 PM
To: Dowling, John
Subject: Open Records Request

Dear Mr. Dowling,

Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:

Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.

We are making this request under Chapter 19.32 of the Wisconsin state statutes, through the Open Records law. Specifically, we would like to cite the following section of Wis. Stat. 19.32 (2) that defines a public record as “anything recorded or preserved that has been created or is being kept by the agency. This includes tapes, films, charts, photographs, computer printouts, etc.”

Thank you for your prompt attention, and please make us aware of any costs in advance of preparation of this request.


Stephan Thompson

Republican Party of Wisconsin

The search terms they’re looking for include the names of the senators currently facing recall attempts in Wisconsin. Along with search terms like “rally,” “recall,” “union,” etc, what it appears the GOP is looking for here is proof that William Cronon is helping to organize recall attempts against these senators with his state email account, because that would be illegal in Wisconsin. At least, that’s what Cronon thinks is going on, and he makes a good case for it in a lengthy blog post.

The FOIA request is completely legal, and if Cronon was organizing recall attempts via his university email, that would be an embarrassing violation of his university’s rules. This is, technically, the sort of thing the FOIA was intended to help people find out. The problem here is that, in context, it seems apparent that this is less about exposing a supposed violation, and more about an attempt by the Wisconsin GOP to intimidate an intelligent and highly-regarded political opponent.

Wisconsin Protesters

Thousands gather inside Madison, Wisconsin's capital rotunda to protest Governor Walker's bill. Photo by Joe Rowley, via Wikimedia Commons. Click to view source.

Wisconsin Republicans are in a bad spot, surrounded by hundreds of angry protesters who are doing things like organizing recalls and getting court injunctions issued, and Cronon, a well-known, well-respected Wisconsin professor, just fanned the protest flames with an op-ed in a major paper, and then tossed in some kerosene, for good measure, with a blog post that revealed some uncomfortable connections between a secretive conservative think-tank and the Wisconsin GOP. And then he gets slapped with a Freedom of Information Act request that seems to be hunting for anything that smacks of a violation, so his opinions and information can be discredited.

Of this FOIA request, Cronon writes, “My most important observation is that I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity. I’m offended by this not just because it’s yet another abuse of law and procedure that has seemingly become standard operating procedure for the state’s Republican Party under Governor Walker, but because it’s such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894.”

This is all technically legal. It follows the letter of the law perfectly. It’s using the law to intimidate a political opponent into silence, but it’s legal. The question is, is it right?

Update: The Wisconsin GOP made a public response to the outrage over the FOIA targeting William Cronon: Wisconsin GOP: You’re damn right we requested Walker critic’s emails.

Related articles

Edited for a minor correction at 2pm 3/26/11.
Edited for grammar & punctuation & to add an update at 1:30pm 3/27/11.

What do you think?